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Guinea's Future

January 29, 2010

Just days ago, Guinea seemed on the brink of chaos. Now the West African state faces elections within six months. Is this a glimmer of hope for a nation that has been ruled by strong-armed leaders since independence.

Guinea's interim leader Sekouba Konate
Guinea could at long last be on the road to civilian rule and democratic electionsImage: AP

On the face of it, Guinea has great potential. Its rich oil and mineral deposits could make it West Africa's wealthiest nation. Yet half of the state's eight million-strong population live on less than US $1 (71 cents) a day.

Decades of poor government is the chief reason for the country's ills. Since 1958 Guinea has seen two autocratic leaders and a military junta at its helm. Over the last six months, the country has looked dangerously close to the edge of a civil war.

The massacre of 150 opposition supporters in Conakry stadium last September was followed by an assassination attempt on the junta's leader Captain Moussa "Dadis" Camara by an army rival two months later. In January, Camara's threat to return from convalescence in Burkina Faso raised the specter of a vicious power struggle within the military.

Guinea military leader Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara
Guinea's former military leader had threatened to return to GuineaImage: AP

Positive vision for the future

Now the opposition and the military have agreed to share power in a transitional government that will hold elections within six months. The new interim prime minister and opposition politician Jean-Marie Dore said this week that he hoped for "free, transparent and credible elections" in a speech at the national assembly.

The developments in Guinea have been hailed by the international community, led by France and the African Union. "Guinea has marked a decisive stage in getting out of the crisis it has been in for a year and on the way to a state of law and justice," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement.

West Africa specialist Peer Teschendorf told Deutsche Welle that he was "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects of the transition to democracy in Guinea and praised the role of Burkina Faso's president Blaise Compaore in mediating between Camara and other sections of the junta.

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, right, reaches out to shake hands with Guinea's military leader Capt. Moussa Dadis CamaraBurkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, right, reaches out to shake hands with Guinea's military leader Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara
Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore (right) played a mediatory roleImage: AP

"I think it was remarkable that the risk of escalation was averted," said Teschendorf, of Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a non-profit political organization affiliated with Germany's center-left Social Democrats.

Pros and cons

Guinea is also in a relatively good position to carry out the poll, according to Teschendorf. "A political opposition has formed in the country. The people want this election and the military, at least on paper and according to its public pronouncements, want to do the right thing," he said.

At the same time, the high status of armed security forces in Guinea and the lack of any historical precedence for democracy are set to make the shift to civilian rule difficult.

Guinean troops in October's independence day celebrations
The army is very high profile in the West African stateImage: AP

On a purely practical basis, the country will require outside help to organize the elections.

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is currently helping to organize media training for Guinean journalists, hopes to be able to support the production of election specials publicizing candidates' profiles.

And clearly democracy will also have enemies in Guinea. The boon of the country's abundant natural resources is also a blight. "The bauxite, gold and oil reserves also create interests in favor of a weak state. There are people inside the state who can earn handsomely from the illegal trade in natural resources," said Teschendorf.

Measured approach

Sekouba Konate
Sekouba Konate is currently head of the military junta and interim presidentImage: AP

International Crisis Group (ICG) expert Richard Moncrieff also warned of the obstacles ahead and the danger of the international community repeating mistakes made in the past. "There is a clear cyclical pattern in the international community's approach to Guinea, of reform and then retrenchment. The international community has to be cautious, but to be in for the duration," said Moncrieff, whose think tank has warned of the risk of the country becoming a failed state.

"Konate and Dore are political creatures and have their own agenda. The international community mustn't run in and pour money into this without carefully considering this strategically," the ICG's West Africa director told Deutsche Welle.

The 71-year-old caretaker prime minister Jean-Marie Dore is the spokesman of the Forces Vives, an umbrella coalition of opposition parties, trade unions and civil society. But while he might be the political parties' choice, the leader of the Union for Guinea's Progress party is also not unanimously supported from within the bloc. The unions had favored Rabiatou Serah Diallo, general secretary of the National Confederation of Guinean Workers, for the position.

Dore, who was himself injured during the September stadium massacre, was named last week by interim president General Sekouba Konate, who took over from Camara as junta leader.

But the politician has at least promised to tackle what the ICG expert sees as the main problem facing Guinea: the state of the country's army. At his formal instalment in power, Dore called on Konate to "reorganize and restructure the military with the support of the international community."

"Some elements of the army have been acting with complete impunity, abusing the civilian population and going about taking what they want. They need to work on getting it back to barracks," said Moncrieff.

Author: Julie Gregson
Editor: Rob Mudge